A Santa Ana house where authorities Wednesday discovered as many as 400 snakes is so littered with cages and rats and snakes — some alive, many dead — that animal control officers said they are still making their way through the cluttered house and haven't thoroughly searched all the rooms.
A Newport Beach grade-school teacher who lived in the house was arrested early Wednesday on suspicion of animal cruelty, and authorities obtained a search warrant to scour the home.
William Buchman, 53, is identified on various reptile collector websites as a ball python breeder and was using a process known as "morphing" to achieve different patterns on the snakes, said Jason Haywood president of Southern California Herpetologist Assn. and Rescue.
"Ball pythons are easy to care for," Haywood said.
But at some point, Buchman appears to have gone from a snake hobbyist to a hoarder, said Sondra Berg, supervisor with Santa Ana Animal Services.
Berg said when they entered the home, they discovered that mice were eating one another and that the home was peppered with mice feces.
Many of the dead snakes were still in cages and there was no evidence of food or water in any of the cages, she said.
"Four rooms the racks are floor to ceiling each with 30 to 40 snakes in containers per rack." Berg said. "The front room had nine racks, and we haven't even gotten to the next room.
"The majority of them are going to be dead," she added.
Authorities said Buchman's mother died in 2011, and that her death appeared to have affected him profoundly.
"It's pretty sad," Berg said. "Hoarding is pretty much a mental condition. They need help."
Residents in the tidy neighborhood on Fernwood Drive said Buchman was pleasant but that the smell from the house had become overwhelming.
"We thought someone was dead," said Forest Long Sr., 62, who lives next door. "We couldn't open up the bedroom windows. My wife started to gag and throw up."
Santa Ana Police Cpl. Anthony Bertagna said he was standing about 200 to 300 feet away as officers were executing the search warrant and could smell the stench.
It smelled like "death," Bertagna said.
Last year, Buchman came over to watch the Super Bowl with neighbors, said Forest Long III, 18. But the snake breeder seemed to become reclusive after that, he said.
The 18-year-old said they became to notice that Buchman's trash cans reeked and a white van would sometimes pull up and deliver cages packed with mice.
"We understood he was breeding them, but I didn't know he had 300 to 400," he said.
Sam S. Makki, director of Reptile Rescue Orange County, said he was called on to help with the handling the pythons, but that the scene inside the home was depressing.
"A lot of the snakes were just bones," Makki said. "There were rodents running around the house."
Makki said he was personally driving 12 of the rescued pythons to a veterinarian hospital and that his nonprofit organization, Southern California Herpetology Assn. and Rescue, would help care for the snakes and arrange possible adoptions.